Preview: Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston

I mentioned in my preview of September’s title, Jill Homer’s Ghost Trails, that I realised it was the first in this year’s mission to be authored by someone from outside the UK or Ireland. Had I realised this as I was compiling my list I might have worked a bit harder to get other voices from beyond these islands.

And had I not struck lucky by stumbling across an interesting article about black female travel writers just as I was compiling my list, my author list might have ended up entirely white too.

And it’s not even as if the men I’ve previously read in the genre have featured much racial diversity. Tete-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland is the only example I can think of. I read that seven years ago, and in my review I explained that one of the valuable things it did was present an unfamiliar world through unfamiliar eyes, rather than the relatable reference points I might find with a travel writer who was more similar in background to me.

I can’t remember how I found it – on Twitter, I think – but this article by Nneka Okona is an interesting description of the author’s experiences as a black female traveller and writer. She refers to five travelogues by black women that she has been inspired by, and when I read that I decided I ought to include one or two of them in my list.

After all, my whole idea of reading only female travel writers for a year is all about pushing my boundaries as a reader (and challenging my perceptions as travel writer), and I would be undermining that if I didn’t also reflect on other aspects of diversity too.

I looked up the books and chose two of the five, for various reasons including the content, locations of the world involved and reviews. The second is November’s title and I will do the customary preview soon. But this month, I will be reading Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston.

Tell My Horse is one of those books where you’re glad there’s a colon and subtitle, otherwise I might have assumed Tell My Horse was some sort of twee, lighthearted and achingly middle class travelogue about horse riding in the Cotswolds or something. Thankfully, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Written by an African-American author from Alabama and published in 1938, it is, as the subtitle suggests, an exploration of voodoo and life in two Caribbean countries: Haiti and Jamaica.

Beyond that, however, I know very little. Which is actually quite refreshing. And that sense of mystery is one reason why I am looking forward to getting stuck in. But beyond that what grabs me is the unusual topic, a part of the world I know little about, and the intrigue I have about Haiti which is – technically at least – on my travel wishlist.

I have lots of questions in my head as I approach the book, about what I will learn, what insight an American will bring, what the author being a woman adds to the narrative, whether the writing will feel dated, and whether being an African American gives her any connection to an area so inextricably linked to slavery and colonialism.

In a sense, a black woman travelling in the 1930s stands out as distinctive in itself. There’s surely a good story in that, and I am looking forward to finding out.

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